During a recent trail run I watched Conall do something I’ve seen him do before, but this time, in a flash of insight, it took on greater meaning.
I had an “Aha!” moment. Suddenly, a behavior I’d observed without much thought was shown in a much broader and important context. Reflecting on memories of similar behaviors in my earlier Malamutes, I realized I was witnessing something profound.
Conall was counting pack members.
No matter that he didn’t know they weren’t really going to be joining our pack of two. In that moment, he had reason to believe they would be, so he counted them. He created a scent tally in his mind of each individual new pack member.
My Life with Malamutes: Some Background
One of the reasons oh-so-many years ago I chose an Alaskan Malamute over a Siberian husky was because I read that Malamutes are pack-oriented and will stay with their pack – their humans – whereas huskies are far more independent, often running off on their own adventures for hours or even days at a time if not restrained by fence or leash. I wanted and needed a dog that could run with me off-leash, so in 1985 I got my first Malamute and named her Opus.
I wish I could say I was keenly attuned to Opus’ behaviors and learned much about dog behavior in general and Malamutes in particular from her. She was my beloved companion for 14 years and I did learn a lot from her, but most of our life together was spent in the suburbs while I was busy building a law practice. She and I didn’t spend a lot of time on forest trails so I didn’t have many opportunities to watch her utilize her natural instincts and abilities. My bad.
Soon after Opus passed, in 1999 I got an eight-week-old Alaskan Malamute and named her Maia. I was now in a place in life where I could spend more time with, and focus more attention on, my dog. We did lots of training together when she was a pup, and soon she was my regular running companion, on-leash when in the city, off-leash when on the trails. In the forest, off-leash, she always led, but stayed close. I quickly noticed her keen observation skills, seeing, smelling and hearing critters long before I did. I watched and learned her body language over a broad range of interactions: with people, other dogs, and wildlife.
Because of her keen instincts, I credit Maia with giving me the confidence to explore the natural world, showing me so much I would otherwise have missed.
Two years after bringing Maia home I added another Malamute puppy, Meadow, to our pack. The two of them bonded instantly and strongly. We were now a pack of three, although my then-boyfriend Mike was with us so much, including virtually all of our trail runs, that really, we were a pack of four.
Maia was always lead dog, allowing me to constantly observe her body language as we made our way along trails. I quickly realized that she always knew the most direct route back to the car, even in new areas; she would balk at taking round-about routes. (I joked she had a GPS implanted in her brain.) I learned that Maia’s dropped tail, coupled with standing utterly still and looking nervously up the trail or into the trees, meant bear. (I began referring to her as my bear radar. Her bear-detecting ability once saved us from a potentially bad encounter with a mama bear and her cub.) When either dog stopped to raise their nose in the air, sniffing the scents in the air with tail held high over their back, wagging oh-so-slowly, there were deer or elk nearby and I’d better leash them up. When they heard or saw other people approaching, maybe with dogs, they stood right on the trail, tails and heads held high, observing and gauging the newcomers. As soon as I said something, even just “Hi,” they would relax and approach the people/dogs slowly, tails wagging in friendship. One time we came across a sketchy-looking guy on a trail – he was definitely out of place there – and neither girl had any interest in greeting him, which was unusual, so I gave him wide berth, refusing to even say hello. Even though I know Malamutes are exceedingly friendly, I like that to the uninitiated, they appear intimidating and potentially dangerous if riled, keeping bad actors at bay.
Occasionally on those weekend trail runs with Mike and the girls, when one of us wanted to log more miles the other would peel off to take a shorter route back to their car. When it came time for Mike to go one way and me – with the girls – another, they became so upset! We were splitting the pack, and that’s just not allowed in the Malamute Code. Together they would dash after Mike, then come dashing back for me. I would entice them to follow me, but almost immediately they’d be visibly upset and turn back for Mike again. Back and forth. After our first experience with this distress I realized I had to leash the girls to keep them with me for a good five minutes after we “split the pack” before I could let them off-leash again without worrying they’d turn back to search for Mike.
In 2005, when Maia was six and Meadow four, we moved to Idaho (without Mike) and spent even more time running trails, exploring the national forest near our home. Their skills at spotting and identifying various wildlife were expanded, as were my skills at reading their body language to determine what they spotted. Lots of trial and error on my part, for sure, but eventually I was confident I knew what was ahead of or behind us based solely on their body language. The one time we encountered a wolf in the forest, I instantly knew from Maia’s body language that she’d spotted something new.
Now, with Conall, I’m seeing all those innate abilities and behaviors that Meadow and especially Maia possessed: the keen senses of smell, hearing and sight that allow him to know what wildlife is nearby; subtle differences in body language alerting to different creatures (bear; elk; deer; not-so-wild-but-freely-roaming cattle; humans; dogs; turkey; grouse; squirrel; chipmunk; and, alas, skunk). Conall has the same stop-and-assess behavior when spotting large wildlife and before greeting people and dogs on trails. It’s one of the traits I most appreciate.
By contrast, Finn – my Australian shepherd – exhibits virtually none of these alerting behaviors. A herding breed dog, he wants to chase anything that moves, sometimes before he’s even identified what it is. He’s not out to attack or kill anything – if wildlife remains still, he trots right past it, oblivious. He just wants to herd moving creatures away. Now that Finn is older (12.5 years) and slowing (slightly), I notice he’s as focused on Conall’s body language when we’re out in the forest as I am. Conall is usually in the lead. If he stops to watch, smell or listen, Finn also stops and watches Conall intently to determine whether it’s safe to continue on. I love this synergy because Conall’s behavior often gives me the few seconds I need to tell Finn to stay so I can put a leash on him, knowing that Conall has spotted cattle, or deer up ahead.
Finn’s breed isn’t known for having a pack mentality. Bred to herd cattle, Aussies are independent operators, looking to their human for direction in terms of their “job” but not terribly worried about keeping a pack together. For example, Finn wouldn’t be concerned if a friend running with us accidentally took a different path or fell off pace and lost contact with us. Finn is a wonderful trail (and house) companion, but honestly, the only thing I can rely on him for when we’re in the forest is to make sure I’m never attacked by rabid squirrels.
With Conall, on the other hand (and Maia before him), I know I won’t get lost, I’ll be warned of any animals – two- or four-legged – in the vicinity, and he’ll make sure our pack, however he defines it on a given day, will stay together. Plus, he keeps me entertained with his goofball antics.
Malamutes Are One of the Closest Wolf Relatives
Domestic dogs share virtually all of their DNA (99.9 or 99.8% depending on the reference) with wolves. Some breeds – considered “old” breeds – are more closely related to wolves than others. Among these old breeds are Alaskan Malamutes, which also retain the most wolf-like appearance of all dog breeds.
I’ve been fascinated with wolves most of my life. One of the joys of living with Alaskan Malamutes for the past 35 years is noticing how many of their instinctual behaviors are wolf-like. I feel like I’m doing observational research into wolf behavior by extrapolating from the Malamute behaviors I’ve seen consistently for decades. There are so many parallels, many not considered by researchers.
My own personal theory for how wolves first came to co-habit with humans however many thousands of years ago, eventually leading to the domesticated dogs we know and love today, consists of four major attributes possessed by wolves:
- First, their ability to read body language and eyes, not just within their own species, but of other animals, including humans. Dogs became successful at cohabiting with humans because of their ability to read and sometimes mimic our emotions.
- Second, their keen senses helped lead humans to game, to food.
- Third, their amazing sense of place and direction helped make sure the humans never got lost after pursuing game over vast distances.
- Fourth, their affinity for babies, their own as well as human infants and toddlers. (I’ve never met a Malamute who didn’t ADORE babies.) Early humans must have observed the wolves’ pack behaviors, how well they cared for their own families, especially vulnerable pups. Based on what I’ve seen in my Malamutes, I’ve always believed that in those early relationships between humans and wolves, the wolves demonstrated their love for human babies, which surely assuaged fear in the humans at having the wolves close by. Perhaps some of those early wolves even acted as babysitters for human infants, just as they did for wolf pups in their own packs, freeing the humans to pursue more food gathering, sharing it with the wolves.
A win-win situation for sure, giving some wolves a food and survival advantage and the humans ample reason to keep the wolves around, domesticating them into what ultimately became the dogs of various breeds we know and love today. The human-wolf co-evolution may have started as long as 100,000 years ago. It’s a field of scientific inquiry that is still hotly debated, with much to learn and discover. To date, I’ve never seen a scientific paper on the topic tie the behaviors of wolves and their the domestic dogs most closely related to them together for insights into how those early interactions between humans and wolves may have played out. I think it’s worth exploring.
What Makes a Pack?
I’ve learned that Malamutes can have several packs. They have their homies, the dogs and people they live with every day. Then they have their play date packs, whether at an off-leash park they regularly visit, or friends (human or canine) they see frequently on walks or on trails. With Maia and Meadow, before moving to Idaho we spent an hour most weekday evenings at a local play field with other neighborhood people and their dogs. Those dogs became a pack, along with their people, because they spent so much time together. They easily recognized and happily greeted pack members. If an unfamiliar dog and/or person approached from the perimeter, however, they would dash up as a group to greet and check out the new addition. (How intimidating for the new dog, right? But it almost always resulted in a big welcome to the group.)
Conall’s home pack is me and Finn. Because there aren’t any off-leash dog parks where I live, Conall really hasn’t developed a pack of regular playmates, but he does love to meet dogs on the trails and sometimes, if we see them often enough, I can tell he considers them peripheral members of our pack. Other dogs in our neighborhood, seen regularly as we drive in and out, are definitely not pack members; Conall (and Finn) are always on alert when they spot them from the car because they’ve never actually met them, had a sniff-and-greet. If a new dog moves into the neighborhood, both Conall and Finn are on high alert, woofing to make sure I know there’s a newcomer. It can take several sightings before they stop alerting to the new dog.
My friend Ben, who often runs with us, became a member of our pack the first time he ran trails with us. When we’re on the trail, Conall keeps track of us all. It’s his job. In fact, Conall’s trail behavior changes significantly when Ben does run with us. When it’s just me, Conall and Finn on a run, Conall takes the lead. When Ben began joining us on occasional runs, we would start out with Conall in the lead, followed by me and Finn and Ben bringing up the rear. But Conall kept slowing his pace, so much so that I had to slow mine and my view of the trail was blocked by his big fluffy body, increasing the chances I would trip. I got tired of saying, “Go, Conall; go!” and finally asked Ben to take the lead. Conall tucked in behind Ben and in front of me, with Finn either ahead of me or bringing up the rear. We were able to run at a comfortable pace in that configuration, which allowed Conall to easily keep an eye and ear on all of us. Although, if I need to stop to take a pee and Ben continues up the trail to give me privacy, Conall gets nervous, following Ben but eventually returning to make sure I’m safe and intending to keep up, while Finn stays near me because he’s not into the pack mentality thing and instead simply remembers who feeds him every day. Take Ben out of the running picture and Finn, Conall and I return to our usual configuration, Conall in the lead.
Packs are a fluid concept for Malamutes, which makes sense. For wolves in the wild, pack membership and dynamics could change over time. Wolves need to adapt to pack changes in order to work together for the benefit of all pack members, which maintaining vigilance against competing packs. An ability to recognize their own pack – visually as well as by scent – over broad expanses of terrain is critical to overall pack safety and viability. My experience tells me that those instincts and abilities have been preserved in their close cousins the Alaskan Malamute.
Creating a New Pack on the Trail
All of my observations over time with several dogs helped me understand what I was watching Conall do that recent morning while running trails in a popular mountain biking trail system in the forest. I chose that location for a Saturday morning jaunt because I hoped Conall would have the opportunity to greet some mountain bikers – he loves them; has since his first encounters with them as a puppy – and maybe some nice dogs as well. We scored on all counts.
But it was Conall’s interaction with a group of six mountain bikers that opened my eyes.
Usually, Conall hears a biker or two up the trail, stops and listens, and when he finally sees them, goes all soft and wiggly as he watches them approach. He knows to stay out of their way if they don’t stop, but if they do stop, he loves getting closer to make eye contact and hear them say hello or, “He’s gorgeous!” If they do get off their bike, he’s all in with a full-on greeting including pets and even kisses if they want them. (Especially kids; Conall loves kissing kids.) But most cyclists don’t get off their bikes or even stop. After a brief hello between them and me – standing off the trail – they’re gone, Conall watching their backs disappear down the trail. He never tries to follow them.
This recent morning played out differently, though. Conall was posing on a boulder in a section of trail where it makes two tight switchbacks through some large, rugged boulders on a fairly steep hillside, with several big, sharp rocks poking out of the trail as well. It’s technical; experienced bikers ride it but many walk it. Even I, as a runner, am careful through there. It’s a pretty spot, one we usually have to ourselves, and Conall enjoys posing for photos on the boulders.
As Conall was striking a few poses, he heard something and turned toward the sound, his tail dropping as he concentrated. I was behind him and couldn’t see beyond the boulder he was posing on, but I guessed some bikers were approaching. A second or two later, Conall’s tail started swishing back and forth and his body relaxed, he way of signaling, “Oh boy! Bikers approaching!”
I moved a few yards up the trail for a better view. When Conall and I both saw the first biker appear, I called out, “Friendly dog approaching!” Conall’s cue it was okay to greet the cyclist. Two other bikers appeared behind the first, slightly uphill from him. I had my camera out and was taking photos while also observing the bikers and Conall to make sure everyone was happy and safe.
I didn’t want Conall to cause an accident in this tricky section of trail. The first two bikers stopped (without getting off their bikes) and greeted Conall with outstretched hands, which he quickly sniffed, then carefully rode through. Conall bounded back to me, excited.
The third rider stopped and then slowly walked through the most technical part while straddling his bike. Conall took that as a signal to return and get a good sniff of him.
While I engaged in some minor chit chat with the third cyclist – having moved off trail to maintain social distancing and stay out of their way – Conall happily bounced around the man, then returned to where I was standing. No sooner had Conall reached me then the next two cyclists started down the switchbacks, part of the same group, so Conall spun to go greet them as well.
And this is where I noticed the intriguing pattern (and stopped taking photos, to better observe): Conall approached each cyclist, getting a good sniff of an outstretched hand or a leg, then moved to the next to do the same. Once done, he returned to me. He made sure to sniff each and every one. He didn’t linger. He wasn’t seeking physical contact; he even avoided one cyclist’s attempt to pet him.
Immediately after he greeted cyclists four and five, a sixth appeared, the lone woman in the group. As she dismounted to walk the switchbacks, cyclists four and five rode slowly through. The woman was slower and chattier than her friends. Conall got a good sniff of her hand as she and I talked about how wonderful a morning it was, nice and cool in the shade of the trees. That conversation, I later realized, along with the earlier cyclists’ slowed pace and words exchanged with me, were cues to Conall that these people were more than just random cyclists; they were friends.
In his mind, they became pack members. He needed to keep track of them.
When the woman finally mounted her bike and rode away to catch up with her companions, Conall appeared confused. I started running up the trail again, in the opposite direction of the mountain bikers. Conall followed me, but kept stopping to look back at (or more likely, listen to) the disappearing cyclists. He was clearly conflicted; he wanted to follow them but didn’t want to leave me. The new pack was already broken! They’re getting away! But wait, my main person’s going this direction. I have to keep an eye on her; her well-being is my primary job. It was eerily similar to the way Maia and Meadow would behave when Mike and I would part ways, taking different paths or directions on forest trails, confusing and alarming the girls.
In that moment it became crystal clear to me what Conall had done that morning: because the cyclists slowed or stopped, and because I was chatting with them in such a friendly way, he assumed they were joining our pack, so he counted them. He collected their individual scents, adding them to the pack as members. His job, as pack protector, was to know who the members were and to keep track of them. He was visibly upset when they left us. I have no doubt that if he had to go find them to bring this new pack back together, he could have done it.
It took some convincing to get Conall to continue our run away from the cyclists. When just a mile later we turned back, returning along the same trail, he picked up the pace and even cut some switchbacks, hoping to catch up to the cyclists and reconstitute the new pack. I’m certain he was following their scents.
A Malamute’s job is never done: Find the route; alert to wildlife; keep the pack together.
Feature image: Conall posing on a boulder on our return through the technical switchback section of trail.